Tag Archives: Movies (2016)

‘Toni Erdmann’ a rich comedy of embarrassment

Although I’ve had my doubts about Halloween since I was a kid, it took Toni Erdmann to confirm what I disliked about disguises. As Winfried, the music teacher with peculiar ideas about reconnecting with corporate headhunter daughter Ines (Amour Fou‘s Sandra Hüller), Peter Simonischek acts with fake teeth and a horrible wig that makes him look like the wannabe hip manager of a hair metal band. Shadowing her in Bucharest as she flits from bosses to clients, Winfried pretends to be the pseudonymous Toni Erdmann, “life coach,” assigned to help a friend mourn the loss of a pet turtle. Ines’ colleagues and potential clients react to his unnerving presence with genuine curiosity; they invite him to loft parties and allow him to buy champagne. Ines, sidelined, flashes tight-lipped smiles.

When I saw Toni Erdmann in December, I wasn’t sure how writer-director Maren Ade wanted me to respond. Why Ines tolerated her father in the first place stretched credulity. A second viewing last week reinforced Ade’s achievement. Apart from capturing the nuances of thwarted love and the ways in which children deny commonalities with their parents, Ade choreographs a semi-serious dissection of the embarrassment under which corporate culture thrives. Toni Erdmann stays taut for three hours; it creates genuine suspense in a manner that Carol Reed might have approved. Are these people going to get away with this? (“Simonischek and Hüller seem to be as amazed as we are by the things their characters lead them to do,” Amy Taubin wrote after its Cannes premiere). I’ve never seen anything like it.

Although viewers are familiar with Toni Erdmann‘s two most (in)famous set pieces — Ines giving a committed karaoke performance of Whitney Houston’s bathetic “The Greatest Love of All” for a family that looks less impressed than we are; an apartment party at which she greets guests in the nude and requires the same of them — I was struck this time by two smaller but no less poignant moments. Early in the film, Ines glances out an office window at an ugly undeveloped plot of land sandwiched between clean and no less ugly modern structures: is she thinking about what grotesque boutique hotel serving Eastern European plutocrats will eventually rise in its place? Speaking of hotels, the other memorable scene is set beside Ines’ own ghastly own swimming pool: unimpressed by the masseuse who didn’t “beat her up,” she orders a lackey to bring two glasses of champagne, OJ, and — nice touch — a pair of club sandwiches for her and Winfried.

Her imperiousness is supposed to demonstrate her ruthlessness, but Toni Erdmann instead demonstrates how badly Ines plays at being a plutocrat. She’s supposed to be able to persuade clients to “downsize” and perhaps “outsource,” but they and she are not persuaded, in part because they sense she’s putting quotation marks around the jargon they use with committed fluency. When she says to her father, “The more he fires, the less I have to fire” she sounds relieved, not tough. At a nauseating meeting with the head of the company that Ines has been assigned to eviscerate, she doesn’t even bring a pen — she has to borrow his. Is Winfried any worse than Ines’ boss humiliating her by criticizing her approach in front of clients, or any more uncouth and loutish than her coworkers and clients partying at strip clubs and pretending empty champagne bottles are cocks?

Throughout Ade’s camera, restless but watchful, keeps its distance; Toni Erdmann is a miracle of unobtrusive camera work, eschewing, say, Cristian Mungiu’s pseudo-documentary realism. Like 2010’s remarkable Everybody Else, which depicted a couple falling out of love, Toni Erdmann risks filming the banal because Ade understands that life doesn’t consist of a series of privileged moments so much as an ever expanding compendium of rehearsed and received gestures that on occasion we may have the inclination to parse. Sometimes all it takes is a late middle aged man in a wig and teeth. Even with Winfried as Toni Erdmann in her circle, Ines nevertheless keeps a large part of herself in shade. At the nude birthday party her non-chalance creeps out the guests (“I’m definitely not getting undressed, it’s not my deal,” offers one, in another example of Ade’s pitch-perfect ear for dialogue). “For team building,” Ines says when sensing the unasked question, as if smiling at a private joke. She should be smiling — she’s exacted her quiet revenge.


‘Cameraperson’ offers new ways of seeing

2016’s Acacdemy Award nominations for Best Documentary Feature were the best in many years, possibly the best in a quarter century. Cameraperson didn’t make the final cut, but won enough praise to justify the Criterion treatment. Kirsten Johnson’s montage of sequences from many lands adds up to a fugue of transnational suffering. Somebody’s oppressed or about to be oppressed, whether by external forces like nation-states or unseen ones like a god very much like Thomas Hardy’s. Sketchy and often reductive, Cameraperson nevertheless is an affirmation of the filmmaker’s responsibility to contexualize what the eye sees; capturing reality is not the limit of a documentarian’s duty.

The Bosnian town of Foča serves as the pivot around which Johnson’s film turns, the center of some of the Bosnian War’s worst atrocities. Johnson interviews survivors of rape and the mothers and daughters whose men were lined up, shot, and tossed into open graves. Juxtaposed against these sequences are stills of Wounded Knee, Tahir Square, the Hotel Africa (a symbol of the Liberian civil war), Guantanamo, and Bibi Mahru. Although the locations have the sense of coiled energies often captured in nature photography, putting them together just long enough for their importance to resonate unleases that energy: in the desolaton of an abadoned swimming pool, the rapid chill of an American desert in twilight, the anonymity of a town square, Johnson draws arrows sixty years backward to Hannah Arendt, who understand how the blank stupidity of a public face can mask evil. Meanwhile a citizen of Kano, Nigeria, does her own kind of soldiering on: a midwife deliers a mother’s fourth baby.

“These are the images that have marked me,” Johnson announces at the start of her film, and she means it. Not for her the Flaubertian separation between creator and subject. Listening as an Indian boy describe how a rocket severed half of his brother’s face, Johnson confesses, “You’re making me cry even though I don’t udnerstand the language.” She smokes with her people, hangs out with them. The banter has a tinge of desperation when it involves the director’s mom Catherine Joy Johnson, her Alzheimer’s-ravaged mind figuring out what furniture in her living room was moved. Occasionally Johnson’s sympathy outpaces her ability to provide connective tissue commensurate with the emotions triggered by the title cards and images. I’m not sure how she wanted audiences to respond to a Catherine sequence followed by a teenaged black mother in the South, face hidden from view, explaining why she prefers aborting a pregnancy to placing the child up for adoption. And Michael Moore makes the kind of unexpected appearance that threw me out of the movie for a couple of minutes.

But caring too much is hardly a mortal sin in a filmmaker. At her best Johnson, who also shot Citizenfour and The Oath, has a way of seeing.


‘Hacksaw Ridge’ offers more Mel Gibson death porn

Only a man who loathes homosexuals can get such a hard-on for beautiful young men in extremis. Add long hair soaked in blood, mouths open in a combination of pain and ecstasy that Teresa of Avila can understand, and skeptics frozen in truly-he-was-the-son-of-God epiphanies — presto, a Mel Gibson picture. A lethargic, lysergic, and literal account of the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, Hacksaw Ridge pulls the usual Gibson trick, which peaked in 2004’s skin flick The Passion of the Christ, of using sadism to mythologize a man of peace. Only after a strong, insistent beatdown can Jesus the Nazarene and Private Desmond Doss earn the trust of followers. It is, to put it mildly, a strange way to think and live, but no one said being Mel Gibson is easy, and if that’s what a man’s gotta do to earn six Academy Award nominations after years of alcoholic rants, then so be it.

Noting how audiences responded last November to Hacksaw Ridge‘s first third would’ve made a decent case study in tracing the purported evolution of American taste. To emphasize Doss’ hayseed antecedents, Gibson turns every person, piece of furniture, and animal in Lynchburg, Virginia into Rufus Cornpone; cameraman Simon Duggan bathes scenes in a ghastly light. It looks like Song of the South by people who have spent the fifty years imagining how wonderful that film must have been and what a pity Disney removed it from circulation. Motivated to enlist following the American declaration of war on Japan, Doss (Andrew Garfield) faces the wrath of his daddy (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of the Great War who’s seen enough killin’ but is not above beating his wife. But Doss takes the Good Book to heart: doing his duty also means taking Thou shalt not kill seriously, a stricture no less onerous than waiting for marriage to screw his betrothed Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). Because Hacksaw Ridge is a Mel Gibson picture, however, Eros and God make an ungainly peace: Dorothy paper clips her mug shot in Doss’ copy of the Bible, assuming he masturbates while reading from the Song of Solomon.

To set up the conflict and introduce a gallery of hackneyed stereotypes, Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s script drops Doss into basic training, where drill sergeant Howell gets the men to crawl through barbed wire and mud, scale walls, tie knots (attention: foreshadowing!), and march with rifles. But Doss, a Jehovah’s Witness, can’t touch his weapon, nor can he train on Saturdays, the Sabbath. This gets him a number of loud lectures from the chain of command, climaxing with a foiled court martial: his father, using his military contacts, gets him assigned to medic in the Pacific theater. I should note that in the easy part of the drill sergeant, a guaranteed locus of attention in movies from Lou Gossett, Jr. to R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, Vince Vaughan is bug-eyed and awful, an obvious blowhard who fools no one for a minute, unable to shock Knight and Schenkkan’s moronic dialogue to life.

When the action shifts to Okinawa and Gibson can lick his chops filming the mauling and vaporizing of men in combat, Hacksaw Ridge earns its title and at least settles into a recognizable shape: death porn. Some of the grisliest deaths ever filmed too: bullets rip through helmets, boots step on entrails, grenades separate limbs, yawn; it’s realism you can buy anywhere these days. Doss saved several members of his squad by tying thick rope and lowering them down a ravine to waiting soldiers, but the way Gibson films it Garfield could be learning to tie his shoes. At least the violence turns Gibson on; I could hear him struggling to stay awake during Garfield’s chance for an Oscar clip: confessions in the foxhole, during which Doss remembers his daddy beatin’ up his mama while he stood in the way cryin’. To Gibson this is psychology. Never mind: we’re back to bullets and bayonets again, with American soldiers, thanks to Japanese flamethrowers, turned to turkey bacon by an enemy that stays resolutely within the American propaganda tradition of snarling Nipponese yelling bonzai!.

This farrago would be tolerable if Gibson hadn’t directed Garfield to imitate an anguished q-tip. The mystery that Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t address concerns why the U.S. Army allowed Doss to keep his rather stunning head of hair, which Garfield gels with what is apparently the blood of his enemies. Thick, protein-rich, nutty Australian beefcakes like Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey have less to do and sport regrettable hair. As soon as Bracey’s captain says, “Let’s go to work” in the final third, we know we got twenty more minutes of fricasseed and skewered Americans before Doss, like Russell Crowe’s good centurion in Gladiator, is lifted to heaven, or, rather, a medivac, on a morphine-induced cloud while Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score mimics flights of angels singing him to his rest. Before this aborted anointment of the sick Gibson films another sacrament: soldiers drenching Doss in baptismal waters, ostensibly to wash off the muck. He’s a man now. Pacifist or combatant, it’s all the same for Gibson: you’re worthless if you don’t have a man’s brains under your fingernails. He would know. God loves even the worst of His creatures.


Freaks and androgyny

In “The Misunderstood Ghost of James Baldwin,” Ismail Muhammad analyzes how writers have taken the James Baldwin most commensurate with their own obsessions. His hook is a review of Raoul Peck’s 2016 I Am Not Your Negro:

But rather than erasing distinctions between the past and present, I Am Not Your Negro gestures toward a disjunction between Baldwin’s moment and our own. Peck’s decision to have Samuel L. Jackson narrate the movie, for example, points to an antiphonal ethos: It structures its relationship with Baldwin as a conversation that might produce new knowledge. We hear Jackson reading Baldwin’s unfinished project, as if Jackson and Peck were helping the dead writer finish a thought he couldn’t quite complete. In finishing that thought, Peck also allows a new, composite voice to come to the fore. The film asks us to ponder what we can know about our contemporary moment when we stop ventriloquizing our ancestors, and begin to speak in our own voices.

Muhammad reminds us that Baldwin, like every great writer, engaged in a struggle to kill his forebears. His essay is subtle; despite the reference to “ventriloquizing our ancestors,” he accuses no one of swallowing Baldwin’s legacy whole.

Barely getting a mention is the “gay” part of the “gay black writer” moniker. In 2017 we’re still reckoning with “Here Be Dragons,” one of the last essays Baldwin wrote, a cold-eyed mediation on the discontents of masculinity and the sociopolitical forces that shaped it:

Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks — though we are rarely what we appear to be. We are, for the most part, visibly male or female, our social roles defined by our sexual equipment.

But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.

Again, these are words not often written by a writer, and only in the last few years have we begun the conversation about what constitutes masculinity.

My review of I Am Not Your Negro.

Best films of 2016 #1-5

We’ve reached the end. Older entries here. Click on the director’s name for links to the original reviews.

5. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

Named after a Lady Antebellum single to which I was indifferent seven years ago, Andrea Arnold’s first American film is stuffed with music, much of it blessed hip-hop like E-40’s “Choices (Yup),” Migos, and Kevin Gates. Also Jeremih. Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” accompanies an important bliss-out moment. Andrea Arnold’s first American film is one of the few in recent years that depicts teenage drift without trying to “understand.” Certainly Arnold is no closer to understanding the mystery of TheBeef, given his best and most awake performance to date while wearing a braided rat tail. The title works: the film has a sweet glow.

4. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)

The millennium’s about to end, and Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) and her dance troupe kick it to Pet Shop Boys’ marvelous cover of “Go West.” Although modern China’s most acerbic chronicler has nothing particular to say about what 2000 brought except exposure to western consumer goods, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart uses a thirty-year span to show the redefinition of a family, link by link.

3. Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)

I’m also tempted to call Love & Friendship the best film Whit Stillman has made if Damsels in Distress and Metropolitan didn’t exist. But so sharply etched and well paced is Love & Friendship that it represents the apex of the director’s preoccupation with the way in which irony and persiflage conspire to peak behind the surfaces they helped construct. Not to tear them down, however. Whether he sets his films in discos or a country house in the 1790s, Stillman understands the value of these surfaces.

2. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

Based on Maile Meloy’s short stories about people a rung or two up the economic ladder from the hardscrabble lives in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, Certain Women weaves three tentatively connected narratives about women at work and seething with suppressed frustrations. It boasts one of the year’s most delicate and romantic sequences: rancher Jamie, mesmerized by Beth’s ill-prepared and embarrassing lectures on education law to hostile night school attendees, dumps her car and rides a horse to class; Jamie invites Beth to join her on the saddle as they trot to their twice weekly debriefing at a diner. The pair hold on tight as the horse cuts through the cool rural Montana air. Nothing is said. Nothing need be said.

1. Being 17 (André Téchiné)

To be queer is to be aware of possibilities and, animated by the thought of transgressing, seizing them. Once in a while you watch a movie that dredges buried emotions and nuances. Being 17 is one of them. Directed by the seventy-three-year-old André Téchiné, Being 17 is as observant about teenage lust as a movie made by a man half his age, even if you discount the fact that Téchiné has long had an interest in exploring love roundelays with the eye of a novelist and grasping the consequences with the heart of a family friend. I wanted to hug this movie.

The best films of 2016 #5-8

8. Little Men (Ira Sachs)

So immersive is a good friendship that its depths and contours aren’t obvious until its dissolution. Adolescent boys are less likely to plumb its depths. In Little Men, Jake and Tony’s friendship is borne of conflict: after Jake’s dad Brian (Greg Kinnear) inherits a Brooklyn apartment, he struggles with the guilt of having to evict Tony’s mom Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia), owner of a ground floor dress shop. As the tension between the families intensifies, so does their bond.

Little Men was co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, who in films like Keep the Lights On and Love is Strange demonstrated how tight living spaces impinge on human relations. Just as impressive is the confidence with which he limns the limits of male relationships.

7. Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante)

At the foot of the volcano called Ixcanul, Mayan natives earn penny wages for coffee barons, hoping at best that one of the scions takes an interest in a daughter. In the eyes of her parents (María Telón and Manuel Antún), María (María Mercedes Coroy) could not have asked for a more fortuitous fate. But what happens when the limits of her education clash with her ambitions serves as the central tension in Jayro Bustamante’s promising debut, a film whose cast of amateurs speaking in their native Kaqchikel adds to its verisimilitude.

6. The Measure of a Man (Stéphane Brizé)

“I can’t make out what has gone wrong/I was good at what I did,” Gang of Four sang on 1981’s “Paralyzed.” When a sudden act of violence ends the life of a supporting character, a human resources smoothie assures her startled coworkers, “Work was only a part of her life.” The Measure of a Man calls bullshit. We live to work, and it’s never more true than when you’ve got little to live on. Vincent Lindon’s performance of a man crushed by the wheels in industry is the vessel.

5. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

“Only Apichatpong Weerasethakul could make a movie that features ghosts, a slowly rising erection from under a bed sheet, and an actor literally shitting in the woods on camera and still make it seem serene and entirely disinterested in disruption or shock,” Michael Koresky wrote in Reverse Shot. Whether it’s the adolescent who may have turned into a tiger in Tropical Malady or the spirit of a dead wife visiting the eponymous hero in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong’s films have explored the fluidity of identity and the transience of the material world. His is a tone of rapt stillness, surprised by joy. If you sit long enough in the woods listening to cicadas chirp strange things start to happen.